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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen


Title:     Spiders
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

Of all the varieties of "creeping things" spiders seem to be the most universally disliked. I knew well the kind of expression I should see on the faces of my friends when I produced the box which contained my pet Tegenaria, a large black spider, long-legged and very swift, a well-known kind of house-spider.

Happily the box had a glass lid, so the inmate could be seen in comfort; and when the spider's history was told there was always an interest created in even this poor despised creature.

When first placed in its new home the Tegenaria began spinning tunnels of white silky web in various directions across the box. They were almost as close in texture as fine gauze, and had openings here and there, so that they formed a kind of labyrinth.

The spider always lived in one corner, curled up, watching for prey, and when a blue-bottle was put in, and began buzzing, she then rushed up one tunnel and down another until she could pounce upon her prey.

The fly was quickly killed by her poison fangs, and then carried to the corner to be consumed at leisure. Unlike the habit of the garden or diadem spider, no cobweb was rolled round the victim; only the wings were cut off and the body carried away. After some months I noticed the corner seemed filled up with web and fragments of insects, and when I examined it more closely there appeared a large round ball of eggs, over which the spider had spun some web, and then had collected all the legs and wings of her prey and stuck them carelessly here and there in the web so as to conceal her nest, and make it look like the remains of an old cobweb. Over this nest she kept careful watch. One could not drive her from it; she only left it for a moment to spring upon a fly, and would return with her food immediately and resume her watchful life in the corner. At length the young spiders were hatched in countless numbers; they crept about the tunnels, and though so minute as to be mere specks, they were perfect in form, active in seeking for prey, and appeared perfectly able to take care of themselves and begin life on their own account.

I had kept the Tegenaria more than a year in confinement, and having shown such admirable motherly instincts, I thought she had earned the reward of liberty. No doubt she welcomed "the order of release"! At any rate, she scampered away under some tree-roots, and possibly resides there with her numerous family to this day.

Spiders hunt their prey in a variety of ways--some by spinning their beautiful web, with which we are all familiar; others, as the Zebra spiders, catch flies by leaping suddenly upon them, and these may often be seen on window-sills watching some coveted insect, drawing slowly nearer to the victim, till, by a well-directed spring, it can be secured. There are nearly three hundred species of spiders in this country, and nearly all spin and weave their silken threads in some way, but each in different fashions, according to their mode of life. The female spider is the spinner, and her supply is about 150 yards. When she has used that amount a few days' rest will enable her to secrete a similar quantity.

With great pains the spider's silk has been obtained and woven into a delicate kind of material; but as each spider only yields one grain of silk, and 450 were required to produce one yard, the process was found to be impracticable. The insect possesses silk of two colours, silver-grey and yellow; one is used for the foundation-lines of the web, and the other for the interlacing threads. The silk is drawn by the spider from its four spinnerets, and issues from them in a soft, viscid state, but it hardens by exposure to the air. If a web is examined with a magnifying-glass, it will be seen that its threads are closely studded with minute globules of gum, which is so sticky that flies caught in the web are held in this kind of birdlime until the spider is able to spring upon them.

Astronomers and microscopists make use of the strongest lines of the spider's web to form some of their delicate instruments. The thread is drawn in parallel lines at right angles across the field of the eye-piece at equal distances, so as to make a multitude of fine divisions, scarcely visible to the naked eye, and so thin as to be no obstacle to the view of the object. One means of classifying spiders is by the number of eyes they possess. These are usually two, six, or eight in number. The fangs with which the spider seizes its prey are hollow, and emit a venomous fluid into the body of the victim, which speedily benumbs and kills it. In Palestine and other countries a kind of spider is found which is entirely nocturnal in its habits, and never either hunts or feeds in daylight, but makes itself a little home, where it abides safely till sunset. It is called the trap-door spider, from the curious way in which it protects the entrance to its nest. It bores a hole in the dry earth of a bank a foot or more in depth, lines the hole with silk, and forms a lid, or trap-door, which secures the spider from all intruders. I have one of these nests in which the door is a wonderful piece of mechanism, quite round and flat, about as large as a threepenny piece, made of layers of fine earth moistened and worked together with silk, so that it is tough and elastic and cannot crumble. The hinge is made of very tough silk, and is so springy that when opened it closes directly with a snap. The outside is disguised with bits of moss, glued on so that no one can see where the door is. The only way of opening it is with a pin, and even then the spider will hold on inside with his claws, so that it is not easy to overcome his resistance. Amongst some insects sent to me from Los Angelos is a huge "Mygale," a hairy monster of very uninviting aspect. When its legs are outspread it measures nearly six inches across, and one can well believe the stories one hears of its killing small birds if it finds them on their nests. A gentleman living in Bermuda is said to have tamed a spider of the species "Mygale," and made it live upon his bed-curtain and rid him of the flies and mosquitoes which disturbed his nightly rest. He thus describes this remarkable pet: "I fed him with flies for a few days, until he began to find himself in very comfortable quarters, and thought of spinning a nest and making his home. This he did by winding himself round and round, combing out the silk from the spinnerets at the end of his body till he had made a nest as large as a wine-glass, in which he sat motionless until he saw a fly get inside our gauzy tent; then I could fancy I saw his eyes twinkle as his victim buzzed about, till, when it was within a yard or so of him, he took one spring and the fly was in his forceps, and another leap took him back to his den, where he soon finished the savoury morsel. Sometimes he would bound from side to side of the bed and seize a mosquito at every spring, resting only a moment on the net to swallow it. In another corner of the room was the nest of a female Mygale of the same species. She spun some beautiful little silk bags, larger than a thimble, of tough yellow silk, in each of which she laid more than a dozen eggs. When these hatched the young spiders used to live on her back until they were old enough to hunt for themselves. I kept my useful friend on my bed for more than a year and a half, when, unfortunately, a new housemaid spied his pretty brown house, pulled it down, and crushed under her black feet my poor companion." This kind of spider, or an allied species, captures large butterflies in the tropical woods by hanging strong silken noozes from branches of trees, and they have been seen to kill small birds by this method. One of our British spiders lives under water in a dome-like cell of silk, which is filled with air like a diving-bell by the spider carrying down successive globules of air between its legs, which it liberates under the dome until it is filled; and the young are hatched there.

The spider, on its way through the water, never gets wet. It is hairy, and is enveloped in a bubble of air, in which it moves about protected from wet and well supplied with air to breathe. As the spider's supply of food is always precarious, they are able to live a long time without eating. One is known to have lived eighteen months corked up in a phial, where it could obtain no food; but though thus able to fast, the spider is a voracious feeder, and will eat his own kith and kin when hard pressed by hunger.

I believe it is now thought that the spider of the Scriptures was a kind of spiny lizard called the Gecko. One of this species was sent to me from California, and lived for a few weeks, but as nothing would induce it to eat, to my great regret it pined and died. It was about as large as an ordinary full-grown toad, of a speckled grey colour, with rich brown markings, its head something like a lizard, with large thorny projections which extended all along the spine. The feet were very remarkable, each toe being furnished with a sucker which enabled the Gecko to walk with perfect ease in any position on a wall or pane of glass without losing its hold; and travellers say that it is a frequent inmate of Eastern houses, and may be seen catching flies as it creeps along walls and ceilings.

Many kinds of spiders run with ease upon the surface of ponds and ditches, and one forms a kind of raft of a few dead leaves woven together, on which it sits and is blown by the wind hither and thither, and thus is enabled to prey upon various aquatic insects.

The surface of grass lawns may be seen on autumnal mornings covered with tiny webs gemmed with dew. We may therefore estimate the immense number of flies captured by these traps so thickly spread over the grass, and see in them another proof of the adaptation of each created thing for its special purpose, and how wonderfully the balance of nature is maintained, so that one creature keeps another in check, and all work harmoniously together, according to the will of our great Creator.

[The end]
Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Spiders